Like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, my experience as a Black woman in the academy has been that my choice to be committed to supporting my Black husband and raising Black children has been interpreted as a “divided duty,” more than 100 years after Wells-Barnett blazed the trail. I entered the tenure-track 15 years ago when I was five months pregnant. I have taken three parental leaves, which were all met with resentment. This is not unusual, but what I am confident of is that if I had chosen to stay home, I would have faced as much hostility, if not more. America is comfortable with Black women raising white children (TheHelp, To Kill A Mockingbird, Clara’s Heart, I’ll Fly Away…need I go on?), but the minute we try to take care of our own, we’re reduced to “letting down the team,” which is what white feminist Linda Hirshman is claiming about Lady “O.” I’m confused. Just because I have five letters behind my name (Ph.D. and JD) and a substantive career does not mean I am, ever have been, or ever will be on their team.
Why? Because I am raising a daughter the same age as Quvenzhané Wallis, and it’s not the same as raising Dakota Fanning. After receiving an Oscar nomination for her role in Beastsof the Southern Wild, Wallis, the youngest Best Actress nominee ever,landed the leading role in Sony Pictures/Overbrook Entertainment’s upcoming Annie. Despite this, as many people know, The Onion degraded her childhood by calling her a “cunt.” This is where there is a divide between white Moms and “Mocha Moms.” Leslie Morgan Steiner is not raising Quvenzhané, but we are
Although Mrs. Obama did not stay at home until being married to the President, she knows that she is not entirely different from the Black women who stay at home for other reasons. She is also trying to protect her daughter from being “satired.” When Malia was only 11, she was ridiculed for wearing natural hair and a t-shirt promoting Peace. Lady “O” knows that Malia is Quvenzhané, which is why she invited the Mocha Moms to the White House. It’s an ethos Black feminists have understood all along; we need to support each other, value each other, and not degrade a sister whether she goes into the workforce or not. That’s what being on the same team is all about.
Ms. Magazine: How does your feminist identity influence the way you think about food/food politics?
Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper: I am always looking through the lenses of black feminism, critical race feminism and decolonial feminist world-systems analysis when I try to understand food in every aspect. I simply cannot look at food as an “everyday mundane object.” I understand the meanings applied to food as something that represents an entire culture’s ideologies around everything. For example, food can tell me a society’s expectations about sexuality, gender roles, racial hierarchies of power and ability.
Ms. Magazine: Why should people consider food a feminist issue?
Dr. Harper: Oh, that’s a great one. First, I think feminism is really broad, so I’m coming from the perspectives of black feminism and decolonial feminist world-systems analysis. So, that is how I define “my” feminisms, for now at least. I think one cannot understand structural oppression within the food system without understanding how structural sexism shapes one’s relationship within the food system, from seed to plate. For example, what does it mean that tomatoes coming out of Mexico since NAFTA have come to North Americans “cheaply” due to the exploitation of indigenous Mexican women and the myth that indigenous women are “more tolerant” of harsh chemicals and sun exposure than light-skinned mestizas who are usually found working in the tomato packing plants? Check out Deborah Barndt’s work on that.
We are particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of Professor Anita Hill, an African American woman who was maligned and castigated for daring to speak publicly of her own experience of sexual abuse. The malicious defamation of Professor Hill insulted all women of African descent and sent a dangerous message to any woman who might contemplate a sexual harassment complaint.
We speak here because we recognize that the media are now portraying the Black community as prepared to tolerate both the dismantling of affirmative action and the evil of sexual harassment in order to have any Black man on the Supreme Court. We want to make clear that the media have ignored or distorted many African American voices. We will not be silenced.
Many have erroneously portrayed the allegations against Clarence Thomas as an issue of either gender or race. As women of African descent, we understand sexual harassment as both. We further understand that Clarence Thomas outrageously manipulated the legacy of lynching in order to shelter himself from Anita Hill’s allegations. To deflect attention away from he reality of sexual abuse in African American women’s lives, he trivialized and misrepresented this painful part of African American people’s history. This country, which has a long legacy of racism and sexism, has never taken the sexual abuse of black women seriously. Throughout U.S. history black women have been sexually stereotyped as immoral, insatiable, perverse, the initiators in all sexual contacts–abusive or otherwise. The common assumption in legal proceedings as well as in the larger society has been that black women cannot be raped or otherwise sexually abused. As Anita Hill’s experience demonstrates, Black women who speak of these matters are not likely to be believed.
In 1991, we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman’s experience or this attack upon our collective character without protest, outrage and resistance.
We pledge ourselves to continue to speak out in defense of one another, in defense of the African American community and against those who are hostile to social justice, no matter what color they are. No one will speak for us but ourselves.
The Post’s treatment of feminism and Michelle Obama has more B.S. than intersectionality. The obfuscations abound. First, there is this odd aside to “feminist Americans” later placed in opposition to “black feminists.” It is unclear who the former is but it is particularly clear who the latter is not: black feminists are not mainstream feminists. This treatment of feminism sets up the premise that Michelle Obama may be living some black feminist fantasy but she has not ascended to acceptable “feminist American” ideals. The idea of being a “mom-in-chief” is apparently antithetical to acceptable choices that feminist Americans make. I do not want to pile on the writer. Frankly, her artlessness only reveals what many believe. Her problem is not that she has said that Michelle Obama is failing at feminism; it’s that she did not obscure that belief in the elitism that Slaughter so casually tosses about her “having it all” thesis.
Black feminists have been fighting this fight for a long time. The tension is grounded in the relative position to power that the Anne Marie Slaughters of the world have enjoyed by their proximity to white men. But Michelle turns that equation on its head. She is as close to power as any white woman has ever been. She is making choices afforded to her by the role of First Lady. That her choice is to work in the home rather than the workforce is only revolutionary because she is black. Every white First Lady has made the same decision. They were chided but they were not unilaterally cast as feminist failures. Neither was feminism constructed as “feminist Americans” versus black feminists to deconstruct the choices of white First Ladies. I do not recall a single instance of mainstream reporting on the black feminist response to Hillary Clinton as she reshaped the role of First Lady. Why, then, is it salient now?
Well, we know why, of course. We cannot reconcile Michelle Obama in the feminist imaginary anymore than we have been able to reconcile the reality of black women or poor women or immigrant women or trans women or any non-middle class white woman with “feminist Americans.” No matter how you define it, black women have always worked. Our bodies were literally constructed through enslavement as work units and modes of production. Our reproduction was a capitalist endeavor in labor production. If no black woman ever again works in the paid labor force in any position ever again ever, we are all rightful heirs to feminism by virtue of our lived historical experience in the U.S. Black women do not have to earn feminism. If anything, feminism should be earning black women. Even if we put aside the issues of terming motherhood as non-work as compatible with feminism (which it is not), the idea that someone who has come through black women, as has Michelle Obama, would need to prove her feminist bona fides to “feminist Americans” is ahistorical and disingenuous.
It is also why “having it all” debates hold very little appeal for me.
Today, on the morning of this election, we find it crucial to make three central points:
—We do not need to agree with everything a political candidate espouses to cast a vote in her favor. Voting is not an unequivocal endorsement—of a particular candidate or of the systems that structure our participation as “citizens.”
—Voting is participating in a process that allows us to select figures with whom we would prefer to engage. That is to say, voting allows us to have some say in the parameters of future political struggle. It lets us decide with whom we want to struggle. And struggle we must.
—Voting is not an end, or even a means to an end. Black feminist politics are far more expansive than electoral politics. They’ve had to be. Black feminist politics are what allows us— as young black queer and trans feminists—to fight to have liveable lives, to cherish our own survival and delight in the miracles of making it to the next year, day, hour. Voting does not interrupt our black feminist politics any more than it vanquishes the myriad structural and sociohistorical inequities that make those politics necessary.
In other words, to vote is to practice a strategic embodiment. It is to lodge one’s body in a deeply flawed system as part of a larger commitment to developing a world we all might be better able to live in. As feminists of color, we know that politics neither begin nor end with the casting of the ballot. But, for us, right now, the ballot must be part of the process. And so, when the dust settles on this particular moment in history and the two of us return home from the polls, we know that we will continue to voice dissent, to engage in acts of self-care, and to practice a set of politics anchored in the belief that liberation is something we must fight—in all possible ways—to attain.
You might be surprised to know that a number of us here at Black Feminists were amazed to hear you declare in your latest New Statesman blog that “feminism is, and to an extent always has been, a white, middle class movement”.
We’re not sure the feminists of the Indian Chipko movement in the 1970s or the Southall Black Sisters would agree either.
It seems that you’re most worried about the “issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and privilege…fracturing feminist dialogue,” even if your fantasy universal feminism actively marginalises the experience of anyone who isn’t you.
You play into the damaging myth that feminism is for an elite and narrow group. In reality many people who don’t actively identify as or even distance themselves from the F-word still have feminist views. Similarly many people know how intersectionality affects them and others around them, even if they don’t consider themselves to be intersectional.
In recent weeks intersectionality – or whatever you want to call it – has been deemed irrelevant and literally not worth giving a shit about. Now you’ve kindly told us it’s too academic. If we’re being honest, both come across as excuses to avoid talking about intersectionality itself and dealing with how it affects people. Given recent events, perhaps you can see why many black feminists and others are angry.
Intersectionality may be an academic term that has spilled into common usage among many feminists, but that doesn’t mean that the concept it refers to isn’t real and worthy of discussion. It’s merely shorthand for experiences that many people recognise and talk about – those points where race, gender, sexuality, ability, class and so on come together. And while language is important, most feminists only really use that kind terminology with others who know what it mean.
In obsessing over the use of one word, you not only miss the point (intersectionality could also refer to education), and imply that a vast swathe of people are stupid, but worse still you actively dismiss the views of people of colour and others.
"When Aaronette heard that I was making a film about intra-racial rape, other forms of sexual violence, and healing in the Black community, she immediately came up to me at the conference to ask how could she be involved with this project. Shortly after my return home, she sent me a package, which included a donation towards the making of NO!, her curriculum vitae, extensive resources directly related to her ground breaking research and scholarship on anti-rape activism in the Black community. The package also included a letter offering to be involved, for free, in any way possible. This past June, we laughed hysterically during one of our many Sister-friend marathon phone conversations remembering her first mailing to me. Little did she know at the time of sending me her very extensive package in 1996, I was desperate for any and all assistance and expertise in support of the making of NO!. Aaronette literally thought she had to convince me that she would be a wonderful resource for the project. Shortly after receipt of her first of many packages over the years, she became one of the five Black feminist scholar-activist advisors to NO!. Equally as important, Aaronette, was a featured interviewee who shared both her testimony as a survivor of rape; and her scholar-activism on sexual violence on camera. Without expecting anything in return, Aaronette worked tirelessly in support of NO! always looking for ways for me to secure funds to help me cross the finish line; and to spread the word about the making of the documentary. She most generously gave her time both as a scholar-activist and also as one of the consistent trusted shoulders upon which I leaned for ten out of the twelve years it took for me to makeNO!.
"Aaronette’s activism, scholarship, and writings were frequently ahead of the curve. She constantly championed unsung warrior feminist women who were predominantly of African descent. However, she celebrated the resiliency and (sometimes armed) resistance of all women she defined as freedom fighters."
—Aishah Shahidah Simmons, “Remembering And Celebrating The Life And Legacy Of Aaronette M. White,” Feminist Wire 8/18/12
On some days, like for most scholars, the professor-grind was clearly weighing on her and weighing her down. But at her best (which is how I prefer to remember her) she was an energetic, unyielding feminist scholar unlike any other I have met. She encouraged her students to “not wait to start speaking up and speaking out,” warning us that as women (and women of color) the academy is all too prepared to silence us as graduate students, then again while waiting for tenure, and again while waiting for the next promotion or for the move into administration, etc. She also acknowledged that fierce dedication to speaking one’s truth has consequences: that liberation comes with a price. I will never forget how she defined herself on her own terms. She shared once in class, that when one of her doctoral committee members asked her whether she intended to be an activist or a scholar, she boldly stated, “I didn’t know the two were mutually exclusive.” True to form, she remained dedicated achieving feminist praxis through her anti-rape, activist work on sexual violence against women and through her research and scholarship.
—Stephanie Troutman, “Where She Entered: Remembering Dr. Aaronette White And Doing The Work Of Feminism,” New Black Man (In Exile) 8/17/12
I love this post by Dr. K. Ryan Ziegler (@fakerapper): How my past as a black woman informs my black male feminist perspective today (TW: racism, misogyny, domestic violence). It’s a really thoughtful piece on how racism and misogyny affect relationships between black women and black men and about how his beliefs about the responsibility he has to black women as a black male feminist have been shaped by his experience of misogyny as a transgender man:
For some transmen, their female past conjures up memories of pain and humiliation, and rightfully so. These feelings are not absent from my journey but I’ve come to embrace my past as a beneficial asset to my practice of a progressive black masculinity.
Primarily, I am very careful with my interactions with women in order to not be perceived as a physical threat. I am always thoughtful of my newfound “bulk” due to hormones and the ways in which my masculine body moves and occupies space. While walking on the streets, I maintain my distance from women. I avoid eye contact unless we are engaging in mutual conversation and even then, I do not stare. The memory of harassment as a woman doesn’t allow me to.
In professional situations, I am always aware of my male privilege. I do not hog the intellectual space and make it a point to deeply value the input of my female collaborators. My goal is not to be the dominant voice of reason but to attempt to exist as an equal colleague. Furthermore, in my work I find it very important to centralize the experiences of women to supplement the work that they are doing for themselves.
Ziegler, a Ph.D. in African American Studies, is also doing great work chronicling stories of trans people of color, particularly in his film STILL BLACK: a portrait of black transmen. The clip below of his interview with Kylar Broadus, a black trans man who just a few weeks ago became the first openly transgender person to ever testify before Congress, is really worth checking out.